Monthly Archive for December, 2009

Wanted: Angel

Happy New Year!

Solveeczema has always been a hobby for me — an important one, but nevertheless, something I was never able to devote enough time to.  Getting the site going took over a year and very real personal sacrifice.  I had a lot of help, too.  But once I’d written the initial articles about our experience, I felt a responsibility to the hundreds of people who wrote asking for more information.

The feedback I’ve gotten since then has been amazing — there is nothing like hearing you have helped to suddenly and dramatically make a child’s life better — which has kept me thinking about how to take this endeavor beyond this simple amateur web site.

Just keeping the site over the years has been more than I bargained for.  Beyond the costs, I haven’t been able to keep up with email, I have had perpetual problems with updates because the site is published on Comcast, and making updates and changes has been an exercise in extreme patience (and sometimes futility).  This past year, Comcast changed its home page and along with its “improvements”, I lost the ability to log on to my accounts using a browser, any browser, at all.  I have been unable to check my spam folders or to update the Solveeczema site since.

A Solveeczema user recently made a donation large enough for me to consider a real web hosting package through Network Solutions for a year.  I am hopeful I can do this in January or February.  This will significantly help when I have updates to the site, but it won’t improve my time or my ability to reach or help more people by much.   My ultimate goal is a study, scientific support for a solution.

I haven’t written about that much because there are still many hurdles, but I have over the years been slowly taking concrete steps toward this goal.  A number of people early on offered (indeterminate) financial support for a study, but I wasn’t in a position to take them up on it.  That’s changing.

If you have benefited from Solveeczema and are in a position to be an angel — of the beneficent winged type as opposed to the early venture capital type — please contact me through the Solveeczema web site for a proposal.  (Click on the “feedback” link under “Questions and Feedback” on the Solveeczema home page.)

Rates of eczema, allergy, and asthma continue to rise worldwide, and I believe I can pinpoint why.  If you have used this site to good effect, you know I am serious.  Rates of eczema in some towns in Sweden have now topped 40% (researchers determined it to be something about the indoor home environment…)  The amount of effort and money going into developing, testing, and evaluating just “measurement instruments” for eczema severity and quality of life is staggering.

I hope somewhere out there is an angel who sees the promise of demonstrating a true solution as worth a small fraction of that.

Off Topic Post: Joshua Bell Strikes Again – Virtually

The story of violin virtuoso Joshua Bell playing incognito in a Washington DC subway — where virtually no one stops to listen — is circulating again by email.

The story is true.  I couldn’t help writing about it on this blog’s first “Off Topic” post.

But as with most experiments, whether informal ad hoc or formal medical ones, people must take care to separate the experiment from the conclusions that can (or can’t) be drawn from them.

People love an incredible story —  in this case, especially the observation that every child who went through the station tried to stop and listen.

But here’s the problem with it:  it was a set up.  Whether by deliberate design or not, the outcome was a foregone conclusion.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point, he discusses research that speaks to this, that the most important factor in whether people stop is if they have a few moments to spare.  It’s not about beauty or character, need or greed.  It’s just about whether people are pressed for time.  And these people in the DC subway were chosen because of their time vise.

In The Tipping Point, Gladwell discusses a study by Princeton psychologists on a group of seminary students.  Researchers asked each aspiring theologian to prepare a short talk on a Bible-based theme, then to give the talk at another building a short walk away.  On the way to their presentations, each student came across a sick man in an alley.  The psychologists wanted to find out who would stop and help, and what factors (especially of character) would predict who would take the time to lend assistance.

In some cases, the researchers even gave the seminary students the topic of the Good Samaritan to talk about!  To some, he’d say they were late and expected to start already, and to others he’d say they were early but might as well start heading over.

It turned out that none of the factors they studied (such as talking about the Good Samaritan story from the Bible right beforehand) had any effect.  The only thing that did was whether the student was in a hurry or had time.  There the difference was huge. Other research has backed this up.

I have trouble believing the Washington Post reporter who set up this “experiment” with Joshua Bell didn’t know any of this when he designed it — and it’s not really an experiment if you already know the outcome.  Even if he didn’t know to start, he should have done his homework.  (And if he didn’t do his homework, was it really such a severe indictment of people’s poor sense of beauty, or just a stunt with a predetermined outcome?)

He proposed it as a test of whether people would recognize beauty out of context, but if he had been genuine about it, he would have gone to, say, a park near where poor day laborers gather, or asked Bell to play anonymously and out of the way at a picnic for underprivileged kids or at a garish amusement park or in disguise at a farmer’s market.  He didn’t do any of these things, because he likely knew or suspected he wouldn’t get the outcome he wanted for this story, i.e., Bell would have drawn crowds.

In the Bell subway “experiment”, the only people who stopped were the ones who perceived themselves as having a few moments, just as research would predict.  Young children, one must note, live in the time warp of childhood and always think they have time for something interesting.  To make it a test of whether people recognize beauty out of context, the reporter should have put Joshua Bell in a jarringly different context, where people had maybe other (less “beautiful”) diversions, but had at least some time to stop if they wished to.

Just to put this in context:  There is an orphanage in Cambodia that educates and supports Cambodia’s garbage dump children.  The rescued kids were so grateful, they organized a program to bring books and a day of happiness to children at the dump from which they had come.  I was not surprised to hear that the children at the dump treated these books like wondrous, precious treasures.  They don’t need an education to recognize or be hungry for beauty in the midst of squalor and despair.  I’m willing to bet Mr. Bell’s violin playing would be received with equal gratitude and wonder by these most destitute of the poor.  (But you’d have to design such a visit with the same circumstantial sensitivity as by these children who returned.)

The subway story filled me with cynicism about the reporter rather than people’s capacity to recognize beauty.  Shame on him.

It’s still a good story, though.  But poor Joshua Bell!